Microsoft Surface Duo’s design is winning me over, even without turning it on

Inside a little bit white field in entrance of me is a gadget that appears like a little bit guide. The Microsoft Home windows brand is embossed on high. I open it, bending it just a few instances. I really feel like I am holding a small Moleskine, made from glass and steel.

Inside? No shows. Simply circuitry by glass. This is not a working model of the Microsoft Surface Duo being unveiled at present. This can be a particular see-through prototype despatched to me prematurely simply so I can see the circuits and really feel how the hinge works.

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Inside the Microsoft Surface Duo: We didn’t use it, but…


Product reviews are weird in 2020, and no device I’ve seen this year has been weirder than the Microsoft Surface Duo. Microsoft’s return to phones takes the form of a dual-screen, hinged Android device that looks like two tiny iPads bonded together. There will be two 5.6-inch OLED screens that together form a 8.1-inch display, bound together by a unique hinge that Microsoft says has been in the works for years. It’s 9.9 millimeters thin when closed, 4.8mm when open, weighs 8.8 ounces and costs $1,399 for the starting configuration, with 128GB of storage.  Microsoft is starting preorders Wednesday and will ship it Sept. 10. International prices aren’t yet available, but $1,399 converts to about £1,070 or AU$1,960.

I’ve been skeptical about dual-screen devices, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the Surface Duo. Wannabe version of Samsung’s possibly even more expensive Galaxy Fold 2? Weird tiny dual-screened version of the Microsoft Surface tablet? Something more? I haven’t had a chance to use an actual working device yet. Instead, I got this specially made, see-through prototype. Kind of ridiculous. And yet, even holding it, I’m already falling in love with the feel of the thing.

This feeling isn’t new.


The see-through Surface Duo next to a Nintendo 3DS XL, which is the dual-screen device my family has used a ton.

Scott Stein/CNET

I’ve been wrong on dual-screen devices before

Back in 2004, I remember opening up an absurd two-screen device that I felt was sure to fail. It had a stylus. It promised twice the viewing area for whole new experiences. I thought it was insane. It was the Nintendo DS, and I soon realized it was a lot more amazing than I expected.

I think about that Nintendo DS whenever I see a product with dual screens or folding screens. But I think about it the most when holding a non-working shell of the Surface Duo for the first time. I’ve seen the Galaxy Fold, and the Moto Razer, and all the other dual-screen laptops and tablets that seem to be sprouting up like weeds. The Duo seems a lot more like a Nintendo DS or some sort of magic Moleskine. It’s tiny. But not that tiny. It depends on whether you’re perceiving it as a tablet, a phone or a funky digital book.

Microsoft promised to reinvent the idea of dual-screen computing with the Surface Duo and Neo a year ago. The Surface Neo, which will boast two 9-inch screens, has been delayed until 2021. But the Duo is arriving in a few weeks, sooner than expected, maybe right alongside Samsung’s new Galaxy Fold update, in the middle of a pandemic year where everyone’s budget has collapsed and their need for gadgets has become a lot more practical.

The Duo is a phone, but Microsoft clearly doesn’t want to call it a phone. Maybe what Panos Panay, head of Microsoft’s devices business, told me and CNET editor Ian Sherr last week will turn out to be true. Maybe it really is a new device category. 

Skeptical? Heck yes

I told my kids I was going to review a dual-screened, phone-slash-tablet thing from Microsoft. My oldest son looked at the folding non-working device and said “that’s weird.” But my youngest son was totally into it. “Whoa, does that mean you can play two games at the same time?”

My oldest son says his younger brother is an optimist while he’s more of a realist. It’s also interesting to hear how two kids who never saw a dual-screen thing besides the Nintendo 3DS react to the idea in the first place. 

Microsoft’s goal, here, is clearly to make the whole idea make sense from a multitasking perspective, helping to solve problems on phones that are already overburdened. I’ll say this much: Being stuck at home on infinite Zooms while trying to work has made me more aware of the need for multi-displays than ever before.

Here’s what Microsoft’s proposition could mean for transforming the foldable device space — a space that clearly hasn’t taken hold yet, but which Google, Microsoft and a lot of other companies are trying to compete in, using physical folding devices and even wearable virtual ones. Will an extra screen solve Microsoft’s phone problems, or will it evolve phones into something many people might not even need? Or is Microsoft’s work on functioning, practical dual-screen apps the sort of necessary work these devices needed in the first place?

Microsoft Surface Duo

The Duo feels great to hold, even without screens.

Richard Peterson/CNET

2 screens: Are they better than 1?

“As it turns out, it might feel familiar, because there’s this thing, it’s called Windows,” Panay says about using the two-screened Duo. “The idea where I can now formally put two windows next to each other.” That’s what the Duo experience should be, according to Panay: familiar, not strange. Or that’s the hope.

Of course, the Surface Duo is running Google’s Android software, not Windows. 

I listen to this over a Microsoft Teams interview done remotely, where I also get a tour of a showroom inside Microsoft’s Building 87 — the same building where the Microsoft HoloLens was developed, and which I visited in person a year ago.

Microsoft’s Duo team operates from research that says two screens are more productive than one, so Microsoft treats the dual screens like a portable pair of monitors. But that’s been the pitch we’ve heard from every other dual-screen phone- and tablet-maker. Microsoft’s angle is aiming to get those screens looking as work-friendly as possible, and make the whole thing feel easy and comfortable to use. The displays are separate rather than folding. That’s to allow for more durable glass and to work with Microsoft Pen without denting the screen, according to Microsoft Technical Fellow Steven Bathiche.


The two 4:3 displays have some significant top and bottom bezels.


The 4:3 aspect ratio on the two 5.6-inch OLED displays is meant to handle the work-friendly part. The idea is to make web pages and documents look readable without weird reformatting, and compare to the same work being done on a laptop or tablet. 

The two 5.6-inch displays combine for an effective 8.1 inches — I say effective because those two displays are still split by a little seam in the middle. Panay says that size is amazing for web browsing, but the clear seam in the middle means it won’t be ideal for big videos, necessarily. For that reason, viewing big movies isn’t part of Microsoft’s Duo pitch, although looking at videos on one screen while doing something in the other definitely is. 

One thing I find interesting about Duo is that it can stand up easily at a ton of angles: At least, the non-working model I held in my hands does. It feels like a device I might use to watch something on in one screen and take notes on in another. Again, kind of 3DS-like. But that really depends whether the final product feels useful or awkward.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Each half of the Duo has an accelerometer, gyroscope and proximity sensor to sense position and hand apps off from screen to screen.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Apps will work, but not all be dual-screen optimized

Microsoft’s core productivity apps — including Outlook, Word and OneNote — work in dual-display modes and can recognize each other to allow information to be easily thrown between apps. That’s similar to the sort of drag-and-drop ideas that are being worked into the iPad’s dual-app multitasking modes. But other Android apps won’t immediately get that extra level of detail.

Google’s core apps, which include Gmail and Drive, will hopefully be optimized for the Duo soon, but it’s unclear when.  A few other third party apps are being courted to make Duo-optimized dual-screen Android versions, most notably Amazon’s Kindle app, which will have two-page reading. “The reading experience is crazy,” Panay boasts. “It’s like picking up a book — you turn a page, it goes from the right to the left, and you just fall into it. You fall in love.”

How many others app-makers will come aboard? That’s the challenge with a new form and an operating system Microsoft didn’t even create. The Duo, running Android 10, is a sort of living concept car for future dual-screen apps and devices.


It’s unclear how many apps will optimize to use both displays (seen here).


The dual-screen ideas and the way Microsoft handles them in apps will influence where the Surface Neo goes next year. And it may affect what future devices choose to focus on, too. “When we construct those [dual-screen] APIs for builders, we do not simply need them on Duo,” Panay says. “When twin screens come, even on folding screens, we would like these APIs to circulate into Android so builders can construct for each dual-screen telephone.” 

It is unclear, although, whether or not Google’s plans for dual-screened gadgets will likely be in sync with Microsoft’s, or if it is a momentary marriage of comfort earlier than the comparatively small group of dual-screened and folding phones possibly expands to a bigger scale subsequent 12 months.

“I am unable to let you know what Google’s engaged on,” Panay provides, “However I do consider that if firms wish to choose up dual-screen or transfer ahead, we’re setting groundwork foundationally for purposes to broaden, to rotate the proper manner, to span these screens to make use of each screens.”

Microsoft Surface Duo

There’s quite a lot of stuff below the hood in a very skinny design on the Floor Duo. There is a cut up battery and customized processors, however no 5G.

Scott Stein/CNET

No 5G, massive bezels: Sacrifices to get to measurement

I additionally get a transparent message from Microsoft that measurement, for the Floor Duo, has been every thing. Getting the Duo to a comfortable and compact kind has meant leaving some options off. There is not any 5G or Wi-Fi 6, as a result of in accordance with Pavan Davaluri, a 16-year Microsoft veteran and Floor engineer we spoke to, the battery efficiency is not at the moment there for the scale of the Duo. “There’s some elementary issues in 5G that must come to life to have the ability to match right into a 4.8mm design,” Davaluri says “That form of tech shouldn’t be there but. It is one thing we’re actively engaged on.” 

Equally, the bigger bezels on the highest and backside of the Floor Duo shows, which clearly aren’t as edge-to-edge as different telephones, do not appear preferrred both. It is much less display screen actual property for the scale. Davaluri admits this was a part of a compromise to suit the Duo’s battery and elements into such a skinny design. Microsoft centered on show high quality, hinge mechanisms, machine measurement and battery life over bezels and 5G. “Bezel optimization and 5G, for instance, within the grand scheme, I believe are solvable issues,” Davaluri provides.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Thinnest dual-screen folding machine we have seen? Possibly.

Richard Peterson/CNET

The Floor Duo actually does really feel skinny. The non-working machine I held is thinner, when opened, than an iPhone 11 Pro, which is 0.32 inches (8.1mm). Closed, it is thicker, but it surely does not really feel practically as cumbersome as a folded-up Samsung Galaxy Fold, which is 17.1mm thick when closed. And it does not really feel like two telephones glued collectively, both. It is extra book-like in its dimensions.

The all-glass back and front of the Duo look sharp, however the design was chosen to enhance antenna reception. Will the Duo be sturdy sufficient? The machine makes use of Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5 throughout, however Microsoft would not give any claims on drop check reliability. And as for the graceful, sturdy-feeling twin hinges, we’re informed to anticipate “years” of use, however not a particular variety of folds it might survive. “The Floor Duo hinge is designed and examined to perform properly past the lifespan of the product,” Microsoft guarantees us.

It higher be good, and it higher final, as a result of a tool like this is not low cost. Beginning at $1,399, it is not far off from different premium telephones — and extra approachable than the Galaxy Fold 2 was at $2,000. Nevertheless it’s some huge cash in a world the place you may additionally purchase a telephone and laptop computer mixed for significantly much less.

Microsoft Surface Duo

There are quite a lot of wires working by these hinges.

Scott Stein/CNET

2 screens, however simply 1 digicam

The Floor Duo does not appear to be about its digicam, which is a shock when nearly each different telephone has many of them. There is a single 11-megapixel digicam on the within, which may develop into an exterior digicam if the Duo shows are flipped round. The f/ digicam has some AI and a portrait mode, and may shoot 4K video at 30 and 60fps with HDR and slow-motion video. It does not have optical picture stabilization or any of the opposite step-up zoom and focus options you discover in different telephones. 

I do not know what the digicam will likely be like, however Microsoft is clearly downplaying it as a core function on the Floor Duo. And in a world that is extra camera-focused than ever, that looks like bizarre timing.


A selected software within the toolbox

Microsoft is not going for a one-gadget-that-does-everything strategy right here. As an alternative it means that it is a machine that may go well with some, but it surely’s not essentially for everybody. The concept of specialised devices is not new: Our lives are already flooded with good audio system, smartwatches, modular recreation consoles and tablets that always slide someplace between telephones and laptops. 

Panay appeared hesitant to name the Duo a brand new machine class, as a result of it actually is not. It is an Android telephone. Or, a pill. “It truly is 5 years of invention … we simply have a perception that there is a new class right here,” Panay provides. 

Microsoft’s argument is smart, although, particularly as a software program developer who lives amongst gadgets starting from iPads to recreation consoles to VR headsets. I am reminded, holding the Floor Duo, of the primary wearables earlier than smartwatches turned a factor, or the primary smartphones earlier than the iPhone, or early VR headsets earlier than Oculus. Twin display screen gadgets must nail down their id, nonetheless.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Pocket book, recreation console, telephone, PC: how will the Duo be perceived and used?

Scott Stein/CNET

I additionally surprise: In a world the place screens could also be all over the place and more and more digital by VR and AR headsets and glasses (or TVs and shows that may sync seamlessly together with your telephone), what’s the goal of a dual-screen pocket machine?

Steven Bathiche, a Microsoft Technical Fellow who heads the Utilized Sciences Group, has a farther-ranging view of the place gadgets like Floor Duo match. “Every thing is the perfect for one thing and the worst for one thing else,” he informed me from an area that seemed like his dwelling.

“I see a world the place we’ll simply have increasingly basically specialised instruments that will help you get stuff accomplished,” Bathiche says. “However they will be related by software program and thru the cloud to make them really feel like they work as one.”

For an organization that additionally pushes into costly skilled instruments equivalent to Microsoft’s $3,500 HoloLens mixed reality headset, it is unclear which prospects will likely be first to select up a Floor Duo. However as an idea automotive to test-drive apps and construct out a street the place different gadgets will observe, it makes good sense. I simply do not know, but, if I will wish to hop aboard.

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Scott Stein